Friday, June 02, 2017

HUNTING THE SWISS ROEBUCK



My wife, also an avid Montana hunter, is a naturalized US citizen but grew up in Switzerland. My Mother-in-Law Gerda and her late husband Traugott were long-time hunters in Switzerland. Unfortunately Traugott passed away shortly before I met my wife, but I got to know Gerda well. She has an impressive array of shooting medals herself and is the only person I know who has participated in a hunter’s biathlon at age…whoops, sorry, I can’t reveal that particular information. Suffice to say it was a credible performance for any age. She still hunts in her home canton (state) of Zurich, but no longer pursues chamois and ibex high in the Alps in the canton of Graubünden.

A Swiss hunter's home.

You have to really love the hunt to become a licensed jaeger in Switzerland. When my wife took the class many years ago, they had to learn and were tested on a wide variety of subjects. These included both game and non-game species of animals and birds and their habits, identification of trees and shrubs, hunting dogs, firearms including the inner workings of various actions, ammunition and ballistics, and optics. If you failed a single topic you could re-take that particular topic over, but if you failed more than one you had to re-take the entire test. Today the exam focuses on the most practical subjects, but a new hunter must first serve a 3-three year working apprenticeship with a hunting lease group. Members of these groups have a variety of other conservation-related tasks to perform besides hunting.
Game where Gerda lives includes roe deer, wild pigs, fox, badger, hare and the quail-like wachtel. Up in the mountains they also have Hirsch, which are related to our wapiti or elk, the nimble little gams or chamois, and the noble king of the heights, the Steinbok or ibex.
The Swiss also have some traditions that go with their hunting. When an animal is killed, a ceremonial “last meal” of local vegetation is placed in its mouth, a tradition my wife and I carry on with our own deer, pronghorn and elk. It is also a widely-practiced custom to eat the testicles of one’s first buck, properly cooked, of course. Some hunters also share a bit of “medicinal” mountain schnapps from a hip flask at the conclusion of a successful hunt. Others, when they haul away their Hirsch, turn its head back for one last look at the mountains. In many areas, most notably Graubünden, the mountain hunting season ends with the celebration of the St. Hubertus Festival, where thanks are given to the patron saint of hunters. I learned fellow hunters were wishing me luck when they said, “Weidmannsheil.” The proper response is, “Weidmannsdank.”
           During our last visit to Switzerland in May 2017, Gerda was able to take me hunting for roe deer as a guest, but before I could get a hunting license (Jagdpass) and insurance I had to first pass the shooting test. For this, we drove to the Jagdschiessandlage Embrach where the shooting range is nestled in the bottom of a deep draw surrounded by forest. A slight breeze rustled the three banners on the flagpoles out front, the Swiss flag in the middle, the Canton of Zurich to the left, and the City of Embrach’s crest to the right.
         Inside the main range building, various European mounts and a few full heads hung high on the walls, including some nice moose and caribou bagged long ago, I was told, by the founders of the range. There was the traditional schutzengarten where you could sit down at a table and order a brat and a beverage. We signed in at the front desk and got hearing protection. Outside, to the left, the trap and skeet shooters were banging away with their shotguns while to the right the more infrequent but sharper bark of rifles sounded.
We donned our shooting earmuffs and opened the door to the rifle firing line, which was protected by a low-hanging roof in front and walled in on three sides. Along the front, the rifle shooters were firing from benches. Along the back wall, I glanced at the weapons leaning into individual slots within a long, communal gun rack running the entire length of the line. Typical high-end European hunting rifles with plenty of scrollwork and expensive, quality optics were most common, and virtually all of the shotguns were double-barrels, primarily over-and-unders. There were a few drillings as well, the traditional European break-action guns with multiple barrels incorporating both shotgun and rifle into one. But there were very few old war horses here, just one lonely sporterized Swiss K-31 and a couple of German ‘98 Mausers. A lone Mossberg Patrol rifle with an extended magazine really stood out on that rack with its cammo finish. Traugott always shot competition and hunted with his "Army rifles", customized K-31s, one in the standard 7.5x55mm Swiss cartridge and one converted to single-shot and re-barreled for the oddball 10.3x60mm Rimmed cartridge, roughly equivalent to the old British .450/400 Express, which is the only legal caliber for big game hunting in the Canton of Graubünden.
          The canton shooting test I had to pass before hunting big game consisted of putting four out of four shots within the 8-ring on a 10-ring target. The target itself, the Jagdshutzen, most commonly depicts a life-sized picture of a roebuck standing at the grassy edge of a woodline. Shot at 100 meters, the subdued, concentric rings of the scoring bullseye cannot be distinguished by the shooter even through a scope, just as if you were shooting at a real deal. A similar target depicting a chamois is shot at 150 meters. The target is 86x122 cm, or roughly 2 feet 9 inches by four feet.

 The 100-meter rehbock qualification target.




          I watched the action and some of the other shooters while we waited for a lane on the firing line to come open. On the far right, there was also small game practice and qualification going on. This consisted of shooting shotguns with lead shot at a running rabbit target consisting of three separate metal plates, any or all of which will fall if hit, at a range of 30 meters. There is also a moving wild boar target shot at 50 meters but no one was doing that particular course on that afternoon.
In all honesty, having grown up wing-shooting pheasants and quail, I thought the running rabbit was partially lame and moving rather slowly and was surprised at how many people couldn’t hit it. Likewise, watching a few of the riflemen score their targets, I was also a little dismayed by some of the dinner-plate-sized 3-shot groups fired at 100 meters. Then Gerda explained that Wednesdays were partially reserved for the newest and youngest hunters who were practicing or preparing to take their tests. 
          I had borrowed Gerda’s main hunting rifle, which I was only passingly familiar with, so when a lane came open I settled into position with it to do a few dry-fires. It was a bolt-action Blaser SR 850/88 Repetierbüchse, old enough that it is stamped “W. Germany” on the barrel, and decorated with scrollwork. It was chambered for my own favorite hunting cartridge, the good old .30-06 Springfield, or the 7.62x66mm in Metric, which also remains fairly popular in Europe. It wears a variable-power Leupold VX-3i 4.25-10x scope with the big light-drinking 50-mm objective bell and “Max Light Management System” with the adjustable illuminated Duplex reticle. Gerda got it specifically to shoot wildschwein under low light conditions.
          I worked the butter-knife Mannlicher-style bolt handle and closed the bolt on an empty chamber, after which I had to push the bolt handle forward to disengage the safety. A 3-position manual safety switch in front of the bolt handle allows one to lock the action and safety, work the bolt and have the handle safety re-engage after every shot, or work the bolt freely without the safety re-engaging. Gerda prefers to have the safety re-engage after every shot, but this proved to be more inconvenient for me since I shoot left-handed. The trigger was nice and crisp, but much lighter than I am used to, so I dry-fired and worked the action a few times to get a feel for the controls.
When I felt I was ready, I nodded to my wife and she handed me a single .30-06 cartridge. Gerda’s friend Robert reloads ammunition for her and I had checked the multi-national recipe on the box; American 168-grain Speer boat-tailed softpoints and CCI Large Rifle Primers, German RWS brass, and Finnish Vitori powder.
At the range, all rounds were single-loaded; one wasn’t supposed to load the magazine. I snuggled down into a solid shooting position, disengaged the safety and laid my finger alongside the trigger guard, and centered the crosshairs to squeeze one off. Still not quite “at one” with the light trigger, I called a flier right and the recoil surprised me as seeming fairly stout. My wife and I both hunt with fairly lightweight .30-06s firing 180-grain loads.
We decided to check the target after only one shot just to find a starting point for zeroing it for my eye. The range, of course, ran like a Swiss watch. The big game targets were suspended on rollers from overhead steel cables. With the push of a button, a big electric motor kicked in and one target rode back from the 100-meter berm to be marked or scored at the firing line while another passed it going out-bound in the opposite direction, ready for the next shot. My first round was roughly three inches to the right but exactly where it needed to be for elevation so, considering the flier, I decided to fire a 3-shot group.
          I did a little better this time, with no fliers called, and while the group was just a hair shy of one Minute-of-Angle it was neatly centered right in the middle of the ten-ring. I decided to call it good and put away my notebook. I was pleasantly surprised that Gerda’s zero was the same as mine; I had been expecting to have to adjust the windage and elevation and wanted to write down the clicks so we could return it to her zero afterwards.
By then, however, the young hunters in training were beginning their attempts at qualification, and there were a considerable number of them. It would be quite some time until the 100-meter lanes opened up again. Rather than wait, I was given the option of shooting my test at the 150-meter chamois target.

To save time, I qualified on the gamsbock (chamois) target at 150 meters.
 

 Hardly my best group, but good enough to pass the test on the first go-round.

          Qualification was shot from a rectangular frame representing the window of a shooting stand. Not sure off the top of my head exactly where a strange load would hit at 150 meters, I held the crosshairs approximately two inches high. That, and a flier called low, loosened up my group a bit. Still, I did qualify on the first go-round with two 10s, a 9 and an 8 (the flier). I’m pretty confident I could have gotten a perfect score had I been able to shoot the rehbock at 100 meters.
          Just on general principles, I am very much against any and all addition government regulation with regards to the Second Amendment…they already have far too much trouble interpreting even simple phrases like, “…shall not be infringed.” But the idea of a shooter qualification for hunting does have some merit. Even in Montana I’ve occasionally seen some abysmal marksmanship and almost painful ignorance of rifle ballistics over the years.

 The beautiful countryside of the Zurich Oberland near where we hunted.

          A couple of evenings later, Gerda took me out to the hunting area she leases with a group of hunters. She lives in the Zurich Oberland. The area consists of rolling green hills topped with hardwood dominated forests alternated between villages, farms, and fields and on clear days the snow-capped peaks of the Alps gleam in the sun across the horizon. As we drove along the narrow gravel road between farm fields, I was reminded that back home in Montana we are much further north latitude-wise. The local crops were more than a month ahead of ours. It was the 9th of May but many farmers were already getting their first cutting of hay and the field of peas we passed were knee-high and in full blossom.
          We were seeking the western rhe or roe deer (Capreolus capreolus…hey, I had to memorize the genus and species of a bunch of critters in college almost thirty years ago and have never once had the opportunity to actually use it so…Capreolus capreolus.)
Anyway, the roe deer is fairly small, perhaps half the size at most of the North American whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus), being just over two foot high at the shoulder and weighing, on average, about 66 pounds. There aren’t known for wall-hanger racks; three points per side is normal for an adult, and four-pointers are rare and considered really something. Roebucks actually grow their horns in winter rather than summer, scraping off the velvet in March to be ready for breeding in late July and early August. This gives them a chance to fatten back up before winter. So that the fawns are born in May when the vegetation is greening up, the fertilized eggs of the bred doe form a blastocyst (look it up…I had to) so that the embryo does not begin to develop until early January.
          As we were driving down a narrow gravel farm two-track towards the hunting stand, I said, “Well, lookie there.” Out in the middle of a hay field were two roe deer and their summer coats really did shine red in the slanting rays of the late afternoon soon. Gerda braked her Subaru Outback to a halt and whipped out her Swarovski 7x42 binoculars, focusing on the deer and informing me that one was a legal buck. Then they were gone, bounding like a pair of dogs through the tall grass and disappearing into the forest. Their tails are small and you don’t see the waving white flag of the whitetail as they flee. Silhouetted against light green leaves for a moment, I could just make out the rehbock’s forked antlers with the naked eye as he gained the timber.
          Even though we’d spooked the deer, it was still quite early, about 1530, so we took a chance that they would be back. Gerda said reh tended to only sprint a short distance and then hide up in thick cover. She parked up a gravel lane well into the forest and we walked back to the hunting stand, approaching it cautiously and quietly and glassing ahead…just in case.

 The stand we hunted from.

          Her hunting group builds and maintains the stands. It was a nice new elevated stand on a lattice of poles, the floor ten or twelve feet above the ground. Inside, it had a swivel chair and the floor, walls, and window sills were all carpeted to muffle noise. Facing south, we opened the shooting windows on three sides to look out over a field of hay and an adjoining one of peas, with a field of flax bearing bright mustard yellow blooms beyond. Past the crop fields stood the red-tiled roofs of a cluster of farm buildings, with brown and white Guernseys grazing nearby. Behind us and to our left, running along the edges of the fields, was the forest, predominantly hardwoods in full leaf. Some of the flora I recognized as being the same or very similar to species found “back home” in Montana; mountain maple, raspberry, and alder. Others were new to me and I had to ask Gerda what they were; buche (beech), schwarzdorn (blackthorn) and hartriegel (dogwood).  
A few other things were different from what I was used to, most notably being on the approach route to a large international airport and having fat-bodied jetliners roaring overhead every few minutes. Back home, the nearest airport (Bozeman) is sixty miles away and on the other side of a mountain range. When the breeze was just right, I could faintly hear cowbells tinkling in the distance and once, on the hour, I heard the low gonging of church bells rolling across the landscape.
          We dug out Gerda’s Bushnell range-finder, for I like to range several landmarks within my hunting area when I take a stand so I will know where the deer will be within shooting distances, but the battery was dead. Range estimation was done the old-fashioned way with the Mark I Eyeball but, checking out the field afterwards on Google Earth, proved pretty accurate.
I was happy using the old pair of binos I had found hanging in Gerda’s garden shed, well-used black Swarovski Habicht 7x42s of probably 1970’s vintage, but she insisted I take her new green rubber armored SLC Swarovskis. I glassed the edge of the woods intensely. As an old armored cavalry scout, we call it looking through the “wall of green.” By constantly and minutely fine-tuning the focus on your field glasses, you can train yourself to look through thinner intervening foliage and see deeper into the forest itself. It wasn’t easy here for hazel brush, maple and seedlings crowd the edges of the woods, reaching for sunlight with their leaves.
Within the first few minutes, however, I just happened to spot a deer. A shaft of sunlight from the setting sun angled through the leaves into the woods to briefly illuminate the rump of a deer before it stepped behind the smooth gray trunk of a large beech tree. Watching that edge intently, twice more I saw movement, only a patch of hide visible for a moment through the leaves, but it was the proper color and moved right, as a deer would while slipping through cover.
          Something told me the deer would come back out. I watched the projecting finger of forest where the movement had been, but nothing ever came out; the deer must have turned left to stay inside the wood line. I think Gerda wondered if I was seeing things. After about an hour passed with no further movement, I began to wonder a bit myself. At one point I was surprised to see a couple of wachtel fly out of the edge of the forest and coast across the field. For awhile after that I glassed harder, wondering if the deer had flushed the birds out. As is so often the case, no matter how hard I sought to spot the deer en route, in the end they simply appeared.
          After a long stretch of silence, around 2000 hours the doe dashed out of the far woodline and into the tall grass and hay where she stopped abruptly, looking around. Several seconds later, the buck ran out of the trees to join her, and now his little forkhorn antlers were readily visible. We watched intently through the binoculars. Where the deer emerged from cover was well in excess of 200 meters from the stand. Back home, with my own rifle zeroed for maximum point blank range and fired from a solid rest, it would have been an easy enough shot, but it was too far for the particular circumstances with an unfamiliar weapon zeroed at 100 meters.
          Fortunately, the deer worked their way straight out into the field, and as they did so they brought themselves steadily closer to us. They would feed freely for a minute or two, then the doe would get fidgety and run 30 or 40 meters before stopping to eat again, and the buck would soon follow suit each time. Their course took them down through an otherwise unnoticeable draw where the grass appeared to come up past their bellies. As we waited, I noticed the wind start to pick up a bit, blowing from right to left and full deflection, but as yet not a considerable factor. It was also darkening quickly as black rain clouds crept closer and thunder began to mutter and rumble off in the distance, slowly but discernibly growing closer.
          Finally, the deer approached the point that would bring them closest to the stand. I rested the forearm of the rifle on my hand on the carpeted shooting window and studied the buck through the scope. I was steady and could keep the crosshairs on the vitals area. The range was right about 150 meters, I judged, and although the wind was again on the increase it wasn’t too brisk yet. The time had come, I thought, where I could make a clean shot and I reached to disengage the safety.
          Just then, something on the far side of the fields spooked the deer and they took off running, bounding gracefully through the tall grass and weaving back and forth. From their initial trajectory it looked like they would pass almost directly beneath our stand before they reached the woodline. Many thoughts raced through my head; excitement from having a chance to hunt on another continent mixed with a sinking heart that this buck would get away. No matter how close they came, I had already decided I would not take a running shot with a rifle I had only put eight rounds through. Back in Montana, when the deer run I imitate the cough-like alarm call of the whitetail, and this usually causes them to stop, look, and listen long enough to get a good standing shot in. I briefly considered making my deer call but wondered if hollering out in "'Murican" to Swiss-speaking deer might just spook them further. So I only watched the action excitedly and gave a small mental sigh that they would get away.
          Fortunately, they both stopped to look back while only fifty meters away from our stand. I could no longer shoot from the sitting position in the chair, but had already risen into a crouch. I was still able to rest the rifle securely on the padded sill between the fingers of my support hand and settled the crosshairs just behind the buck’s shoulder; he jumped into focus, looming large, since the scope’s variable power was still set on 10x magnification.
Everything froze for that unique moment in time when the hunt all comes together. I took a quick breath, let half of it out, and paused before stroking the trigger. This time, when the Blaser cracked, I did not notice any recoil at all. The buck made one slow motion jump forward then faltered attempting to make a sluggish second hop with his front legs and piled up lifelessly, disappearing from our sight in the high grass. As I had trained for many years, I instinctively worked the bolt smoothly but rapidly and forcefully through its cycle to chamber another round in case a follow-up shot was needed. Gerda said it was not and she was right; the deer was down before I finished working the bolt. Only peripherally did my mind register the doe bounding away.

My little rehbock with Gerda's Blaser .30-06.

I was ecstatic and for a moment couldn’t speak, checking the safety and leaning the rifle up in the corner. Then I was thanking and hugging Gerda and we were both laughing excitedly. Silently, in my head, I thanked God for the chain of events which had led up to a perfect shot. Honestly, I had been happy to just have the opportunity to hunt a rehbock in Switzerland; actually getting one on my first hunt was unbelievable.
          Picking the rifle up from the corner, I cleared it and then found the empty case on the floor. Collecting our gear, we closed the windows and door and climbed down from the stand. For the last hour the sky had been growing increasingly threatening and now, just as we left the stand, the first drops of rain began to pelt down upon us as we headed through the high grass towards the buck’s final resting place.
There he was, dead, with a tiny, neat entrance wound behind the shoulder. The exit wound showed that the 168-grain Speer had indeed expanded well even at close range on a small deer. My first thought was that I was a little amazed at just how small he was; I've had bigger dogs. But that was just a passing observation and didn't interfere with my happiness at bagging him.

It's tradition to give the animal a "last meal."

          After a few quick photographs, I dragged him to the two-track gravel road skirting the edge of the field while Gerda went to get the car. Reaching the stand and the woodline, I finally remembered to give the buck his traditional last meal, pulling up a handful of lush green grass and placing it in his mouth. As the rain began to increase, I shucked off my coat to cover the rifle and binoculars while I waited and stood there looking down at the buck, still more than a little stunned and euphoric at our success.
          We put the buck in a large plastic tote in the back of Gerda’s Subaru Outback and drove one of the narrow gravel roads through the darkening forest to the Jadghutte, the neat little cabin the hunters of that area use and share. Nearby, a chain was stretched between two trees, with gambrel hooks hanging from it. This was the first deer I ever lifted straight up in front of me and hung with ease. It made me think of my wife’s fat, stocky four-point mule deer buck of the previous hunting season back home. I had had to tie its feet together, hang the rope around my neck, and lift with hands and legs both just to get him up onto the tailgate of the pickup truck.
          We weighed the rehbock whole at 15,29 kilos (33.71 lbs) and field-dressed at 13,9 kilos (30.6 lbs). Gerda tagged him and recorded the information, which is incorporated into a monthly report by her hunting group that is sent in to the canton, whose officials determine the harvest numbers.
I met several of Gerda’s fellow hunters at one of their many informal get-togethers at the Jadghutte a few nights later, two other women and six men, including a father and son. Despite the language barrier (what little German I learned in the Army in 1986-1988 is awful rusty) everyone was very friendly, welcoming me to their jaeger fold, and all seemed genuinely happy for my success. I could only thank Gerda and a healthy dose of good luck. One of the other hunters had just retired and expressed an interest in coming to Montana to hunt elk with us someday. I hope he does so I can return the favor, although we all knew full well that my success two hours into the first hunt is definitely the exception rather than the rule. Gerda's friend Ursina has come here rehbock hunting eight times now and has yet to get a shot.